No, B2B Media Doesn’t Have an Ethics Problem

It broke my heart when I read the recent blog post “B2B Media, The Ethics Virus & The Pursuit of Consumer-Grade Experiences,” which argued the majority of B2B/trade publishers have a problem of selling out editorial integrity to advertisers. In the piece, Publishing Executive editor-in-chief Denis Wilson wrote, “If you think your organization is immune (from editorial integrity issues), I’d wager you’re a minority or just wrong.”

It broke my heart when I read the recent blog post “B2B Media, The Ethics Virus & The Pursuit of Consumer-Grade Experiences,” which argued the majority of B2B/trade publishers have a problem of selling out editorial integrity to advertisers. In the piece, Publishing Executive editor-in-chief Denis Wilson wrote, “If you think your organization is immune (from editorial integrity issues), I’d wager you’re a minority or just wrong.” Also, that “B2B media has an especially nefarious legacy of playing fast and loose with the journalistic craft.”

I may have taken the post personally, having been a B2B publisher on and off for 40 years. I never sold a word and, must admit, I have no memory of thinking my competition did either. I do not suggest all B2B publishers are beyond reproach when it comes to bending to advertiser pressure. I do say the vast majority do not do so, nor do they have a culture of selling out.

When I came up in the business, there were storied trade publishers like McGraw Hill, Chilton, Gralla, Penton, CMP and many others. There were fat magazines with solid content that industries relied upon, such as Variety, Automotive Week, Billboard, American Banker and Aviation Week. I used to read Crain publications like the old Ad Age with as much enjoyment as consumer books. Women’s Wear Daily, famously known as WWD, had such quality journalism it gained a significant consumer readership.

In the post, Wilson talks about how B2B publishers today are finally learning “quality original content drives audience engagement and monetization.” Those publishers mentioned support my view the industry was built on quality content.

The ASBPE Focus on Ethics

Ethics was indeed discussed at the ASBPE conference. As Wilson points out, that is to the credit of the journalists in attendance. I heard everything Wilson did, but recognized that those few stories of difficult advertiser pressure were presented not as the norm. The example of one publisher giving into ad pressure was worthy of discussion, because that publication had never crossed a similar line before.

We heard about when the rigid wall between church and state required an editor to stop dating an advertising sales assistant or be fired. Another example described when a feature story was written about an industry problem for which a big client happened to advertise a solution. The advertiser relationship had not driven the story. The fact the publisher had to pull their hair out over whether to run the ad opposite the story opener speaks to their integrity. They were worried that although ad and story had no causal relationship, it would simply look like they did. In my opinion they made the correct decision to run the ad opposite the opener, that it was helpful to readers and no lines were crossed.

Yet Wilson and I reached different conclusions as to why ethics was discussed so prominently. To me, it was a reflection of a profession that thinks that is how important editorial ethics are, not to cure endemic problems.

Think back to all the articles Publishing Executive and other media publications ran when native advertising first became a thing. Despite most of us having published advertorials in the past, there was overwhelming pushback that native adverting crossed a line. It was not just theoretical venting. Truly, a majority of B2B publishers during those days told me their staffs would not let them entertain the notion of native. The knee-jerk resistance speaks to a culture not in the habit of doing things for advertisers.

Editorial Contributions

The article correctly acknowledged the importance of editorial contributions from industry experts who happen to work for advertisers or potential advertisers. I’ve been an editor and publisher my entire career, but today as I write for Publishing Executive I am a vendor. My instincts have me steer clear of writing about what I sell and Wilson and I discuss anything I fear may be too close to the line. That has worked out well.

In his post, Wilson attributes industry contributors to low budgets. No doubt that is a huge driver; but there is more to it. I was associate publisher of a trade book called Modern Horsebreeding in the ’80s. Guess who knew much more than all of our writers? The veterinarians and pharmaceutical companies. We did occasionally run articles by their experts — there were no such thing as blogs — though never once tied them to advertising.

When I published a magazine and then website about RFID technology, we were thrilled to get some deeply knowledgeable pieces from industry experts. Sadly, most were not advertisers. But this was terrific content and simply had nothing to do with advertising. If a prospective advertiser really liked that we ran their engineer’s helpful information, great. We’ll take all the good vibes we can get with prospective advertisers. Conversely, when an advertiser complained that we didn’t run their content, we would invite them to suggest a topic. We provided written guidelines they must adhere to, advertiser or non-advertiser. We edited each piece and were glad to consult as they worked on it. I believe approaches like these and those of PubExec are the norm.

The Opposite Reality

From what I have seen, advertiser pressure is something ad salesmen feel more than it being a routine reality. I personally sold ads for decades and ran ad sales teams. Ad salespeople are always hopeful the magazine runs articles plugging clients; it’s in the blood. They sometimes whine to editors about running more copy on their clients. In my experience, editors mostly ignore them with thinly veiled pity.

One speaker at ASBPE said advertisers were purposely overlooked and not written about to avoid the appearance of corruption. As Wilson wrote, “the sticky politics of accepting vendor contributions wasn’t worth the trouble.” In my experience, this is far and away the bigger secret we all carry: advertisers tend to get screwed. We heard how one company mandated that editors not use advertisers as sources for stories. I have personally seen multiple situations where editors avoid calling executives at advertiser companies for quotes out of fear it would look like the publication was kissing advertiser butt.

Big advertisers are often the larger companies in any given industry. These same companies have the biggest budgets for research. These companies are often actually involved in many newsworthy issues and situations because of their commercial reach. It would be self-defeating to avoid tapping their knowledge; yet because of the fear of appearing unethical, I have seen this time and time again.

Advertisers, too, might surprise you. I will never forget at my RFID publication a news investigation that we ran on the cover slammed perhaps the largest company in the industry at that time. They were not advertisers and I thought, well, we’ll never see a dime from them. But it was an important, well-reported story. To the lasting credit of an SVP of Intermec, he told his ad department to place some cover ads in our new magazine. He felt the industry had to support quality journalism.

I repeat: Of course I have heard stories of pay-to-play. The few I’ve heard are memorable because they are rare, not pervasive. One former VP of editorial told me long ago he was made to run feature interviews with some advertisers. Again, that stood out in his mind because it was the opposite of everything else in his career.

I am not saying B2B publishers are ethical saints. Wilson made some excellent suggestions in his post on what editors should watch out for. However, I do believe the B2B publishing industry overall is not rife with virulent ethical lapses.

How Does Native Advertising Survive in an Age of Transparency?

Native advertising goes by many names including: sponsored content, sponsored posts, paid posts, brand services, custom solutions, branded content and probably dozens of other titles. Regardless of the name, the product is essentially the same.

Native advertising goes by many names including: sponsored content, sponsored posts, paid posts, brand services, custom solutions, branded content and probably dozens of other titles. Regardless of the name, the product is essentially the same.

Native ads are pieces of paid content ranging across articles, videos, infographics or images delivered in the flow of editorial content and consistent with the editorial style and tone of the publication. Typically, they have a teeny, tiny stamp that marks them as advertising or sponsored content — if you know what to look for. However, not everyone does know what to look for and research suggests that most users don’t recognize it as advertising.

The implicit agreement of the Web is that content is largely free and that ad exposures pay for the significant costs to create and deliver all that content to users. This keeps it simple — church and state, advertising and editorial — and maintains a mutually beneficial balance. Native advertising subverts that trade-off for the benefit of publishers/advertisers in much the same way that ad blockers tip the scales for consumers.

In fact, many assert that native advertising arose as a publisher solution to outsmart ad blocker software allowing growing numbers of consumers to remove ads from their online experience.

The rise of native advertising under its multitude of names has been impressive. Higher click and engagement rates compared to other forms of online advertising have driven brands on board with flexible formats across social and mobile platforms, in particular. Business Insider Intelligence predicts that spending on native ads will rise to $21 billion in 2018 from just $4.7 billion in 2013. Almost half of online advertisers have adopted native ads into their plans as of 2016, according to a recent survey.

But the widespread usage of this format is not without its costs. A recent Penn State study found there may be negative perceptions attached to publishers who blur the lines of advertising and editorial. Brands using the tactic apparently get more leeway since they are expected to promote themselves.

Still, publishers chasing much needed revenue have almost universally adopted this highly effective approach, including expected sources like Buzzfeed, Outbrain and Facebook plus other, more traditional and mainstream, publishers like USA Today, The New York Times, Conde Nast, The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal.Forbes cover with native advertisingForbes actually devoted part of its cover to a native ad for Fidelity in its latest issue, prompting AdAge to proclaim “Another Taboo Broken.”

Smart algorithms drive the money machine that is native advertising even as popular criticisms emerge in voices as unexpected as John Oliver and South Park:

The reproaches vary but tend to reflect the core concern that users may mistake paid content for unpaid content.

Well, yeah. Native advertising done well will blur the line between content and ads. That is the goal of the format — to keep readers in the stream of their content experience and not disrupt them with a blatant ad. But, if we don’t disclose the commercial intent in a visible and noticeable way, we are using trickery that runs counter to the transparency that users demand in their Web experience today.

How do advertisers capitalize on the opportunities presented by these new innovative ad vehicles without stepping over that thin line? The Federal Trade Commission published specific guidelines late in 2015 to help brands avoid deceptive practices, and the IAB has weighed in as well (opens as a PDF). Guidelines reduce to simply how visible and clear the disclosure needs to be.

Web users demand transparency and punish brands that aren’t truthful at the same time they reward brands that succeed in delivering honest ideas and communications. #Fails abound for hapless brand campaigns that ring false with their audiences.

But, marketers lured by the promise of improved results may minimize or rationalize their deception and probably don’t even consider the broader possible impact on the industry. Like most things, the danger is in the aggregate.

There may be increased backlash coming as more and more consumers come to recognize and resent the frequent sleight of hand integral to many native ad executions. And it won’t just damage the already challenged reputation of the advertising industry, but will also tarnish publishers and brands making it harder for even forthright ad executions to gain acceptance.

For the industry to continue innovating successfully, the public trust must be prioritized with both publishers and advertisers acting responsibly. For native ads, that means a minimum of clear naming and prominent labeling. It’s the law, it’s the right thing to do and it’s smart business.

Why Advertisers Need to Think Native

Native advertising is the latest buzzword. Even venerable publishers such as The New York Times, The Atlantic and Forbes, are trying it out. Is the trend bound to fade, or is it here to stay? Despite some shoddy applications, it’s here to stay.

Native advertising is the latest buzzword. Even venerable publishers such as The New York Times, The Atlantic and Forbes, are trying it out. Is the trend bound to fade, or is it here to stay? Despite some shoddy applications, it’s here to stay.

Although the term “native advertising” was coined by the venture capitalist Fred Wilson just under two years ago, the concept is neither new nor unprecedented. It covers any advertising format that is customized to the user experience of a given platform. Or, in the words of Gini Dietrich, native advertising “integrates high-quality content into the organic experience of a given platform.” A 30-second ad during the Super Bowl? Native. Sponsored stories in Facebook? Native. Paid results on Google? Native. The brilliant humor pieces produced by the Onion that overtly pitch products? Native.

All of these advertising formats work within the existing user experience of a medium to deliver messaging that enhances the experience, or at the least does not interrupt the flow of it. Where it goes wrong is when it interrupts or detracts from the user-experience in fundamental ways.

Take the controversy over the The Atlantic‘s favorable article on scientology, which was paid for by Scientology in response to another more negative story. Readers of the magazine had a hard time distinguishing that this was, in fact, bought. The tone and the format mimicked standard Atlantic articles. By eliding the distinction between paid and editorial content, Atlantic was undermining its reputation for objectivity. Users come to the Atlantic for powerful, independent thinking on society and current affairs. An ad that mimics the form of an independent piece of writing on an important cultural topic detracts from its reputation for independence. Andrew Sullivan goes even further:

“This is corporate propaganda, not journalism. Yes, it is identified as such—but on the video page, actual journalism by brilliant writers like Alexis Madrigal is interspersed with corporate-funded propaganda. You can easily mistake one for the other.”

Not all publishers need to be as careful about creating clear divisions between their editorial content and their sponsored content. Aggregators and news repackagers, such as BuzzFeed or the Huffington Post, are already taking information from a variety of sources. But even they need to ensure the quality of the content and the clarity of tags that show the content as sponsored. People don’t mind paid content if it provides useful information or entertainment value—or if the paid content resides in a context where all of the content is highly opinionated. SayMedia has thrived in this niche by providing content with strong positions on trends, tech and society. Including paid content fits right in.

The real potential for native advertising, however, is where it actually enhances the user experience in new media formats. The Onion has proudly embraced its cynicism, best stated in a column by its advertising columnist Hammond Morris, “Look, I know this may all seem somewhat untoward, and we can go through a whole dog-and-pony show here where I pretend that this column exists as a forum for ideas, and that I act as an independent voice who isn’t beholden to advertisers, and the power of the First Amendment, and blah blah, etc. etc. But let’s get real for a second here, okay? This column—nay, this entire website, this entire industry we call journalism—exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to sell ads. Lots of ads.”

It’s not just that it’s completely self-aware, it produces advertising that’s genuinely funny. The Onion has gone as far as setting up its own in-house creative group called Onlon Labs with the goal of creating funny, self-aware advertising completely in-line with the rest of the Onion‘s content.

The New York Times last week introduced a native advertising format that likewise provide useful information for its readers. The content appears as a tab in The Scoop, the Times‘ activities discovery app, and it provides information about the Citibank-promoted bikeshare program. According to the press release: “This is just one example of how we are working more closely with our advertisers to create unique and custom campaigns to help them tell their brand story in innovative ways,” said Denise Warren, executive vice president, Digital Products and Services Group, The New York Times. “The integration of Citi Bike’s robust content complements The Scoop app’s main objective—to serve as a guide to New York City. With these new features, we hope to further enhance the experience for users of The Scoop as they explore the city using their iPhone.”

Whether or not the tab gains widespread usage is an open question. But the Times did its homework. It knows how people use its media properties. It knows the information that would be useful to its users. And it knows what will compromise its underlying credibility. With that knowledge, it created a new advertising product. That’s how advertisers need to think.

The key takeaway for advertisers is you need to know how a user interacts with the medium—and that new media might have native advertising formats that completely differ from existing formats. Advertorials and space ads might make sense in a lot of contexts, but even more effective formats might open up if you just think about what actually enhances the user’s experience. That’s the promise of native.